Exercises for Strengthening the Back

Plain and simple, standing up, sitting and lying down would not be possible if it weren’t for the vertebral column. Made up of the vertebrae, the nerves (including the spinal cord and nerve roots) and the soft tissues (including invertebral disks, muscles, ligaments and spinal fluid), the spine, when working properly, allows pain free activity and rest.

Exercising helps to keep the various parts of the spine working properly. Exercise also helps to keep us fit so that our spine isn’t burdened with extra weight. Stretching and strengthening conditions muscles which can help prevent back injury, or minimize the severity of injury if the spine is traumatized.

Strong muscles of the abdomen, buttocks, hips, legs and back will all support and stabilize the spinal column. The back, stomach and pelvis area muscles are referred to as the “core.” Strengthening the core and keeping the leg muscles elongated and toned help align the spine to allow for proper curvature of the spine (proper posture). Practicing good posture is probably the most important step in maintaining back health.

Legs and hips– The legs are large muscle masses that are made to carry weight. Strong hamstrings and quadriceps provide stability. Hips help keep the torso balanced. Tight or shortened hamstring muscles can pull on the muscles of the back and make the lower spine curve too far, this is called swayback. Keep the hamstrings especially lengthened and strong. Many people like yoga for a well-rounded stretching regimen.

Stomach muscles – Strong abdominal muscles are extremely important in back health. Without tight abs, the back can sway, you can lose your balance easier, and you are less agile. There are center abdominals and side abdominals; these muscle masses should not be ignored.

Back Muscles – Back muscles are often neglected. People think of working their core and they do crunches and other abdominal work, but forget about the back. With spine health, you can’t have one without the other; you have to work the muscles on both sides of the spine so that it is supported on both sides.

If there is pain being felt, starting an exercise plan should be discussed with a health care professional, however it is generally agreed that staying active can actually help back pain, as long as the activity is modified to be gentle.

There are generally two kinds of exercises for the back; those that are designed to help reduce back pain, and those that help to stabilize and strengthen the back. Stretching should include both a flex and an extension of the spine.

Back Rotation Stretch

When thinking of your core, consider the area around your trunk and pelvis. When you have good core stability the muscles in your legs, hips and buttocks, lower back and stomach work together. Strong core muscles make it easier to do most everything – stand, sit, recreate, run up stairs. Core exercises help you strengthen the muscles in your trunk and pelvis. They also help your balance, since the core is also your center of gravity.

Poor use or overuse of the lower back muscles, such as lifting and bending for a long period of time, can weaken the core. Weak core muscles leave you at risk for lower back pain and muscle injury. Long periods of stress, whether environmental or emotional can weaken the muscles in the back. So not only is strengthening the core imperative in back health maintenance, but releasing tension is also an important step.

This rotation stretch not only releases tension in the lower back but if done slowly should also give a little boost of abdominal strength:

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet and head on the floor. Tilt your pelvis slightly up so that you remove any hollow between your lower back and the floor. Tighten your abdominal muscles and breathe. Keep your shoulders on the floor and let your knees fall slowly to your left side. The bottoms of your feet can come up as your knees drop. Keeping your arms at your side can help to stabilize you and remind you to keep your shoulders on the ground. Go only as far as is comfortable. You should feel a stretch, but no pain. If you ever feel pain, consult with your health care provider. Hold for 15-20 seconds. Slowly bring your knees back up to their starting position remembering to breathe. Repeat on the right side, and repeat the set if desired.

Slow & Gentle Crunches

Keeping muscles strong enough to support the body’s weight is the main goal in preventing back injury. A large but sometimes underused muscle mass are the abdominals. Weak stomach muscles can lead to slouching or swayback. In order to stand upright and keep the back in proper alignment, the muscles of the abdomen need to remain able to support a great deal of weight.

The abdominals consist of several muscle groups: the rectus and transversus abdominis (generally – muscles in the middle) and the internal and external obliques (generally – the side muscles). Keeping these strong can help to lift the trunk upward while both sitting and standing.

Crunches are the oatmeal of the abdominal strengthening breakfast. They are a mainstay. It is one of the best exercises to target the middle to lower abdominal muscles. If crunches are done with a full regimen of core strengthening exercises, back pain could possibly be a thing of the past.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Tilt your pelvis slightly up so that you remove any hollow between your lower back and the floor. Put your hands on your knees or reach toward your knees. Engage your abdominal muscles and breathe. In a crunch you don’t lift your torso all the way off the ground. Keep your chin up and tension out of your neck. Imagine your lower back anchored to the ground. Slowly curl your chest up toward your knees trying to use your abdominals as much as possible and breathe out. Raise yourself up until your shoulders leave the floor entirely. Hold at the top for three seconds and then slowly lower yourself back down breathing in. Relax for several moments. Repeat this exercise 7-10 times. Try to build up to three sets and stop if there is ever any pain.

Stabilizer for the Back

Performing exercises to elongate and strengthen the support muscles of the spine can help prevent back pain and injury. When muscles in the legs and back are tight and/or weak it can cause lower back pain. Muscle strain (muscles that are torn or overstretched) is a problem that most adults experience at some point in their lives.

Another important step in injury prevention, and one that people don’t think of, is balance. Staying agile and stable on your feet can prevent a person from unintentional twisting or jerking in the muscles that can cause muscle strains or even ligament sprains (ligaments that are torn when there is a quick movement in the spine and the muscles cannot react quickly enough to stabilize).

This Stabilizer exercise is a quadruple threat in back maintenance – working the back, abdominal and leg muscles and balance at the same time:

On the floor in a hands and knees position place your knees shoulder width apart and align your hips so that your back and legs are at a right angle. Place your hands in front of you and make sure your shoulders are positioned so that your back and arms are also at a right angle. Your arms should be should width apart. Put your palms flat against the ground; your arms should be engaged to support your weight but don’t lock your elbows. Engage your abdominal muscles and make sure that there is very little arch or dip in your lower back. Lift your right arm and extend it in front of you imagining a level line from your back and along your arm. Hold the head up, but look directly down at the floor. On the opposite side, lift and straighten your left leg, also creating a level line. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds while breathing regularly. Slowly lower your arm and leg. Alternate sides by lifting the left arm and then the right leg. Don’t continue if you feel pain.

Pelvic Tilt and Lift

Core strength – people sometimes think that the term core strength means strong abdominal muscles. Actually, core strength not only means strong abs, but the back as well. There are many different muscle groups involved in keeping us upright and well-aligned. Practicing core strength produces good posture. This means that the vertebrae are sitting properly on top of one another and the nerves of the back (including the spinal cord and the nerve roots) are not being pinched or otherwise irritated therefore reducing or eliminating back pain and injury. Simply, strengthening the core means toning and lengthening the stomach, back, hip and leg muscles.

The Pelvic Tilt can help to tighten the muscles of the lower stomach and back. The Pelvic Lift can help to tighten the muscles of the lower stomach, back, buttocks and upper thigh.

Start with the pelvic tilt: Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet and head on the floor arms at each side. Engage your stomach muscles and tilt your pelvis down toward the floor. Imagine your lower back being pressed into the ground. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds and then relax. Repeat 5-8 times.

Next is the pelvic lift: Stay on your back with your knees bent and your arms to the side. Engage your stomach muscles and breathe. Lift your pelvis directly up to the sky until your chest hips and legs are lined up and not angled. Support this lift primarily with your feet that are firmly planted on the ground, but the lift should be coming from the raised pelvis. Check occasionally that the pelvis hasn’t sagged, keep it raised! Do not continue if you start to feel pain. Hold the lift for 20-30 seconds and continue breathing. Slowly lower your pelvis and relax. Repeat 3-5 times. As you become stronger try to lift the pelvis higher. Look up toward the ceiling during this exercise, since turning your head while your pelvis is lifted could possibly cause a strain.

Knee Tuck Back Exercise

The lower back is the area that has the burden of carrying most of the weight of the body. As muscles are overused they can become fatigued and less able to provide the support necessary to keep the back in its proper alignment. Muscles and ligaments both support the boney structure of the back called the spinal column. Overused muscle can lead to back strains (torn or overstretched muscle) or back sprains (torn ligaments). In many cases, inflammation will occur to protect the strained/sprained area. Inflammation can lead to muscle spasms and other back pain. Weakened muscles leave other parts of the back susceptible to injury.

Muscle strain can come from overuse, such as lifting and bending for a long period of time, or it can also come from built up tension. Long periods of stress, whether environmental or emotional can weaken the muscles in the back. Strengthening muscle and releasing tension are both important steps in preventing injury. This knee tuck feels good and releases tension in the lower back:

Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet and head on the floor. Tilt your pelvis slightly toward the ceiling to reduce the lumbar curve (remove any large hollow there might be between your back and the floor). Keep your knees bent and slowly raise them and pull them toward your chest. Put your arms around your knees and hug them close to your chest. Make sure to keep your head on the ground and keep breathing. If you like you can gently rock from side to side while your knees are elevated. You should feel a release of tension in your lower back. Release your knees and slowly bring your feet back to the ground. This stretch can also be done with the knees separated and the arms hugging each knee separately.

Hip/Leg Extension Back Exercise

Proper spine alignment (proper posture), whether it be sitting, standing or lying down, can reduce the severity of an episode of back pain or eliminate it altogether. Proper posture means lining up the vertebrae so that the natural curve in the spine is realized. This is also called neutral alignment. Neutral alignment can be obtained by evenly strengthening the core. People often think of abdominals as the core, but a good core workout will include work on both the stomach and back. Strong muscles are the body’s defense against the strain of gravitational pull and defense needs to come from both at the front and the back.

Many machines at the gym concentrate on strengthening the upper portion of the back. The lower back is actually where much of the body’s weight is carried, so it needs its share of strengthening. This Hip/Leg Extension exercise strengthens the lower back muscles (and as an added bonus strengthens the glutes and stretches the hip):

Lie down on your stomach and stretch out your legs. The legs should be straight and pulled together. Place your arms on each side of you, bent, with elbows up to the ceiling and palms flat on the ground lined up evenly with your upper chest. Pull your shoulders down and back – don’t let them creep up around your ears. With your face down toward the ground, tilt your head up to look toward the ceiling just until the bottom of your chin is resting on the ground. Engage your abdominal muscles and buttocks. Breathe and lift the right leg about 6 inches off of the ground and hold it there for 5-10 seconds. Keep your leg straight and your foot flexed. Slowly lower the leg and repeat on the other side. You can rest between legs if necessary, don’t forget to breathe and discontinue if you begin to feel pain. Repeat the exercise 3-6 times.

Hamstring Stretch

The legs are large muscle masses that are meant to take on a lot of weight. When the legs are strong, they are able to take on much of the weight that the back would otherwise have to carry. The hamstrings are the muscles on the back of the thigh that if tight, can actually exacerbate back pain. Elongated hamstrings allow the legs their full range of motion which allows the body to stand upright and in proper posture. Tight hamstrings can lead to swayback.

Keeping the muscles of the legs elongated and toned plays an integral part in maintaining back health. Back pain can radiate down through the buttocks and into the legs. Severe back pain can cause numbness or tingling in the legs.

The Sciatic nerve also runs through the same area of the leg as the hamstring. When the sciatic nerve is being pinched by inflammation it can radiate pain down the back through the buttocks and into the legs. When people experience sciatica, they want to overcompensate and be too gentle on the back and legs. However, once inflammation has been reduced, stretching the hamstring can relieve the tension in the legs and the back, which then eases the pressure being put on the sciatic nerve. Here is a stretch that will help elongate the hamstring and can also ease the tension on the lower back:

Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your head on the ground. Tilt your pelvis slightly toward the sky so that there is very little hollow between the low back and the floor. (You can put a small, rolled up towel under your back if it is especially tender.) Bring up your right knee and lace your fingers behind the upper middle part of your calf. Pull the leg toward your chest. Slowly straighten the raised leg. The stretch will increase as you pull back and straighten the leg. Stop the stretch if you begin to feel pain. Stretch the hamstring for 15-30 seconds trying to straighten the leg a little more every several seconds. Slowly lower the leg. Repeat on the left leg. This stretch can be done several times a day.

Hamstring / Glute Raise Back Exercise:

Strengthening the back muscles is just as (if not more) important as abdominals when it comes to maintaining back health. The spinal column runs along the inside and has muscles at both the front and the back to support it, so naturally both sets of muscles should be toned. The lower back takes on the brunt of the body’s weight while sitting and standing. The vertebrae in that part of the back are larger to accommodate this weight, but there is still a higher risk of lower back injury because of this burden. Every day use, such as lifting, twisting and bending can fatigue back muscles and, over time, be the cause of short term problems (acute pain), such as a back strain or sprain, or long-term conditions (chronic pain), such as herniated disks, osteoarthritis, or less frequently spinal stenosis. While most all American adults experience back pain at some point, maintaining good back health can decrease or eliminate it altogether.

This Hamstring Raise is an exercise that will not only strengthen the lower back muscles and the glutes, but will stretch the hips and can help with balance as well:

Stand facing the back of a weighted chair. Stand up straight with abdominals engaged, pelvis neutral (not tucked under or pushed back), and chest up and shoulders down. Let your head balance on top of your neck.

Hold the back of the chair. Lift your right leg out behind you while keeping it straight with your foot flexed. Don’t forget to breathe and stop if you feel any pain. Lift your leg away from you about 12 inches and hold for 5-10 seconds. As you lift your leg, try to stay vertical and don’t tip to the opposite side. Slowly lower the leg and repeat with the left leg. Repeat this exercise 3-6 times. As your back become stronger, try to lift the leg farther back.

Wall Slide Back Exercise

Preventing back pain or maintaining an already strong back can mean fewer doctor visits, less medication and less missed activity. Back pain is the second highest reason Americans call in sick to work after the common cold. Having the strength needed in back muscles is just one step in a healthy back. Knowing the biomechanics of the back can also help keep a back injury-free. What is proper posture? How does the back interact with the neck, buttocks, or legs?

The lower back is more susceptible to back injury. Although the spinal column is made so that the largest vertebrae are located the lower back, there is still a lot of pressure and weight carried in that area. Weakened muscles can lead to muscle strain (muscles that are torn or overstretched). Carrying some of the weight in the legs can reduce the amount of pressure that the back experiences, so strengthening leg muscles is an important part in the prevention of back pain. Strong, flexible legs can take their share of the body’s weight.

This Wall Slide can strengthen the legs and hips and will also work on the back a bit:

Lean against a wall with your feet facing forward and placed about a foot away from the wall. Your feet should be a little less than shoulder width apart. Align yourself with shoulders back and your head balanced on top of your neck. Tilt your pelvis slightly away from the wall, so that the curve at the lower part of your back isn’t great. Engage your abdominal muscles and breathe. Slowly slide down the wall until your knees are bent at a ninety degree angle. Hold the position for 5-10 seconds and then slowly slide yourself back up the wall. Repeat this 1-3 more times, making sure to breathe the whole time. Discontinue and consult a health care professional if you start to feel pain.

Cat and Camel Stretch:

The back carries the weight of the head, neck and body. Strong and properly elongated back muscles allow for good posture, which in turn can help to prevent back pain and injuries. Additionally, because the back carries the weight of the body, tension can gradually build that could lead to chronic conditions such as herniated disks. Disks that provide cushioning for the vertebrae can bulge out from between and cause inflammation or muscle spasms. Emotional distress can also lead to subconscious tension being held in the muscles. Releasing tension can not only prevent back injury, but it can also ease pain from already injured areas by strengthening and lengthening the muscles. The Cat and Camel stretch is great for releasing tension in the lower back:

On the floor in a hands and knees position place your knees shoulder width apart and align your hips so that your back and legs are at a right angle. Place your hands in front of you and make sure your shoulders are positioned so that your back and arms are at a right angle. Your arms should be shoulder width apart. Put your palms flat against the ground; your arms should be engaged to support your weight but don’t lock your elbows. Start with the Camel stretch: bend your back up towards the sky while rounding your neck and head toward your chest. Make sure your abdominal muscles are engaged and that your upper back is higher than your rounded shoulders. Your pelvis should naturally tilt toward your arms. Feel release in your lower back as you breathe in and out. Slowly move into the Cat stretch: As you arch your back toward the ground, pull your shoulders back and bring your chin up toward the sky. As you slowly and fluidly arch your back, your pelvis should tilt out away from you and your buttocks should rise into the air. Open your chest, engage your abdominals and breathe. Repeat several times.